With the first official weekend of the hot season behind us, the months of looking at each other's hot behinds has begun. And no matter how many years we've gazed as late May jiggles down the sidewalk or splays itself with abandon in the park, it always comes as a pleasant surprise after the cold and overly clothed months.
My own early summer buzz, however, got a little bit killed recently as I was having coffee with a friend, an older man who is something of a mentor.
Assessing a woman who passed us, he pointed out that one part of her body wasn't to his liking. "Everything else is great," he offered, "but that makes me have to look away."
This isn't, of course, the harshest thing a man has ever said about a woman in my presence, but it struck me as strange. He almost seemed irritated that this woman's specific body part existed, and it made me wonder why the rejection of some bodies or their parts has to be part of my friend's sexuality.
And when I say "my friend," I mean the rest of us, too.
When I posed this question to Gayle Bessenoff, a body image researcher at Southern Connecticut State University, she referred to objectification theory. "The theory explains that society views women as objects, as not fully human. Women are parts, parts to be used by others," she said, explaining how the female form is often depicted in pieces in ads and pop culture.
"Like the leg lamp in A Christmas Story," she said, referring to a famous prop in the 1983 comedy. "Or you can get a hat with boobs on it. Body parts are viewed as separate from the woman herself."
Although Dr. Bessenoff's examples are somewhat cute in comparison to contemporary ones like CSI, in which women's bodies are routinely and literally chopped into pieces, the message they send to male minds, she says, is not so cute.
"When you don't view someone as a full human being, then you're more likely to treat them differently," Dr. Bessenoff said. "Like in war, if you dehumanize someone it's easier to treat them badly."
Maybe the media makes us do it. Or maybe our natural way of seeing is the chicken that creates that egg? Either way, it's one thing to have something you prefer, but body-part perfectionism seems motivated by something other than attraction.
You cannot, after all, have a relationship with a pair of legs (though I'm sure some men have tried).
Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and editor of the journal Men and Masculinities, describes the judgments men make about bodies as a form of pre-rejection.
"I think of it like the Goldilocks principle: They're either 'too hot' or 'too cold,' but are they ever 'just right'? This is particularly true about those parts of the body that are sexualized," Dr. Kimmel said.
"My general sense is that this talk serves to neutralize the anxiety men feel that women have the power of choice, that women make the decision when we make a pass at them. This gives men the illusion that they have the power to 'screen,' to reject pre-emptively. In other words, it's an example of how men, despite all the power that they have in the world at large, don't feel very powerful in the dating marketplace."
The negative comments, Dr. Kimmel pointed out, are rarely vocalized to women. "They're made to boost our egos around other men. 'She's not worth it to me' is easier to say in the presence of another guy than 'I don't want to find out if she likes me.' "
A friend closer to my age agreed that he would never say anything denigrating to a woman, but says he has a couple guys with whom he can rip apart bodies. "It's a natural part of our personalities, and it's good to find some space to vent it," he said.
Meanwhile, a female friend I ran this issue by reminded me that it's not just men who are mean. She pointed out that women prefer tall men, and I'm glad she spared me whatever else they are saying in private. Like a pair of legs, you cannot have a relationship with a collection of inches (though I'm sure some women have tried).
But in the end, it doesn't really matter who is worse - women or men, me or my friend - because the evaluation of bodies shouldn't be a race to the bottom anyway. Or rather, not just to the bottom. Ever since my friend told me he had "to look away," I've spent more time looking than before, remarking to myself how each person's parts fit together into a whole that is that person. And in this light, it becomes clear - ego set aside and the media ideal of beauty ignored for a minute - that we're all perfect Platonic models of ourselves.
Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks .